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Vandals look to regain winning edge against Western Michigan

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 15, 2017, 7:39 p.m.

Idaho wide receiver Jacob Sannon is off to a solid start to the 2017 season. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)
Idaho wide receiver Jacob Sannon is off to a solid start to the 2017 season. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)

Idaho at Western Michigan

Kickoff: Saturday, 4 p.m., Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo, MI.

Records: Idaho (1-1), Western Michigan University (0-2)

Radio: Vandals Radio Network, 1080-AM

TV: ESPN3

Overview: When Idaho travels to Western Michigan, either the Vandals or Broncos will be the cure for what ails the other. WMU is starting 0-2 after tough road losses against USC and Michigan State. Taking on someone nearer their own size, at home, may be just what Broncos need to get going. From the middle of last season until last week, Idaho won six in a row and rightfully burnished a belief it was bulletproof. That vanished when the Vandals got behind against UNLV and seemed to lose confidence in falling 44-16. “It shocked me. I didn’t know that was going to happen,” Vandals coach Paul Petrino acknowledged. Picking up a road win against a team that went 12-0 in the regular season a year ago and nearly played Wisconsin to a standstill in the Cotton Bowl could restore the Vandals’ belief in themselves.

For the second straight week, Idaho is facing a team adept at running. UNLV rushed for 357 yards against the Vandals. WMU lit up USC with 263 yards on the ground and is averaging 190 yards rushing in its two games. What the Vandals failed to do against the Rebels they will need to do against the Broncos.

“We needed to tackle better and be in our gaps. It wasn’t rocket science,” said Petrino.

WMU features one of the country’s most exciting skill players. Darius Phillips ran back kicks for touchdowns against both USC and MSU. Against the Spartans, he also ripped a ball out of a receiver’s hands and returned it 67 yards for a score. For his career, he has scored 13 touchdowns on kick returns, fumble returns, pass interceptions and pass receptions.

“We definitely do not want to kick him the ball,” Petrino said.

Phillips’ coach, Tim Lester, says Phillips has learned to read defensive keys and is no longer simply playing cornerback with great reaction and athletic ability. He plays almost exclusively on the right side. But all the Vandals receivers will get a chance to try him out, according to Petrino. They are embracing the challenge, he says. Jacob Sannon led Idaho last week with 11 catches for 109 yards. Reuben Mwehla added three catches for 20 yards and a touchdown.

Matt Linehan completed 22 of 34 passes for 261 yards with an interception and a touchdown against UNLV. “I’ve followed him and know who he is,” Lester says. Another of his impressions of the Vandals is “their linebackers make a ton of tackles, and they move their defensive line around enough to keep you honest.”

Linebackers Ed Hall and Tony Lashley led Idaho against UNLV with 13 and six tackles, respectively. Each had a tackle for a loss, and Hall intercepted a tipped pass.

Lester quarterbacked the Broncos in the late 1990s and says he is looking forward to leading them onto their home field for the first time as coach. He replaces P.J. Fleck, who fired up the Broncos with a “row the boat” mantra. But Fleck has rowed his boat to Minnesota, where he is head coach of the Golden Gophers. Under Lester, WMU hung with USC for three quarters before falling 49-31, and the Broncos struggled on offense but stayed within two touchdowns of MSU, thanks to Phillips. However they haven’t won yet.

The Broncos lead a series with the Vandals going back to 1972, 3-1. They won the last meeting in 2014, 45-33. Idaho, though, has had success in Kalamazoo. The Vandals won there in 2010, 33-13.

-Peter Harriman

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